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The Historiscope

I’m fascinated by a visual device produced by Milton Bradley in the later nineteenth century called “The Historiscope:  A Panorama and History of America”. Swann Auction Galleries has one for sale in their upcoming auction. Here’s the description and an image: Printed hand-colored box, 5 1/4 inches tall, 8 1/4 inches wide, 2 1/4 inches deep, with long paper scroll on two spindles within, and mounted on a later(?) painted board; lacking wooden crank pieces and rear cover with caption information, otherwise moderate wear to exterior. The scroll is difficult to turn and has not been examined in full; sold as is. (MRS) [Springfield, MA?]: [Milton Bradley & Co.], circa 1870.

Historiscope Swann Auctions April 14

What fascinates me about this panorama is the early attempt to introduce some interaction into history instruction, although Jennifer Lynn Peterson (in “The Historiscope and the Milton Bradley Company:  Art and Commerce in Nineteenth-century Aesthetic Education, Getty Research Journal, No. 6 (2014): 175-184) informs me that each box came with a script, an “eight-page dramatic description of all the images in the moving panorama, characterized by a lively tone and filled with numerous attempts at humor”. So maybe it was a rather one-way “show”. The other thing that interests me is what the selective/reflective nature of this lens: any historiscope much necessarily reflect the society which produces it rather than the “history” which it purports to reveal. If we could turn the scroll of this Swann lot, we would see 25 iconic images of early American history, including the landing of Columbus in the West Indies, Pocahontas and John Smith, the Pilgrims’ arrival in Massachusetts, and Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. (Another contemporary Milton Bradley product, the Myriopticon, focuses solely on scenes from the Civil War, or “Rebellion”). Would the same scenes have been chosen in 1920, or 1950, or 2000, or now? I’m fairly certain that Columbus would not make it into our 2015 historiscope, at least not in his circa 1870 characterization.

Historiscope Cover Yale

Historiscope Native AMericans Getty

Historiscope Christopher Columbus

Box cover and scenes (Native Americans in full regalia before the arrival of Columbus and the man himself) from Milton Bradley’s Historiscope, c. 1870, Beinecke Library, Yale University and Getty Museum.

So I guess the theatre-guise of the Milton Bradley Historiscope is appropriate: it projects as well as reflects. Even modern historiscopes function this way, literally: my case in point is the Historoscope de Saint-Laurent project in Montreal, which utilizes architectural projection to tell the story of a neighborhood. I love it, and I think it’s probably the best we can do with this genre while we wait (forever) for the development of a real historiscope, a time-traveling telescope which can reveal the past rather than just scroll or screen it.

P.S. Another Milton Bradley Historiscope is available here, mounted on cute little legs!


Hardcovers

I had been wanting to write a post on Black Beauty, the first “real” book I ever read and one that shaped my childhood in several ways, for some time, and as today marks the birthday of its author, Anna Sewall, this seemed like the perfect time. So this weekend I brought out my old copy for inspiration but almost as soon as I opened it up I realized I could not read this book again, much less write about it. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a wonderful book:  I just don’t want to go through the horse’s painful journey again. Of course everything turns out all right for Black Beauty in the end, but Sewall gives him such a strong voice, and fills his story with so many harrowing, realistic details, that the moment I opened up the book (after decades) it all came rushing back. I can’t imagine how I had the courage to read this tome in the first place at age seven or eight: the fearfulness of youth, I suppose! But I’m not going back: the protective material side of me has surfaced, fortunately, and I’m going to focus on the decorative aspects of books today instead of their content.

Black Beauty 1st ed.

Black Beauty 1897

Black Beauty 2011

Covers of Black Beauty:  1877 first edition, 1897, and 2011 Penguin Threads edition–with design by Jillian Tamaki.

Enough of suffering, compassion and sanctuary! Like anything that seems likely to go away, books have becoming more precious as objects for some time, both in their original form and in variations and adaptions. One company that seems to be bridging the gap between literature and art is Juniper Books, which offers ready-made and custom collections of books gathered around a particular author or theme with covers and spines designed to decorate the bookshelf. When they can’t find an appropriate set of books to house their designs–they just cover up odd volumes–and so we have an Ernest Hemingway set of elephant-embellished books and an anonymous set of elephant-embellished books, all ready for a pachyderm-themed study (like mine).

Hardovers Juniper Books Hemingway Set

Hardcovers Elephant Book Set

And if you’re just looking for book forms, there are a variety of options: ceramic books are my particular preference of this genre –book-shaped vases and flasks go way back, at least to the eighteenth century. A couple of years ago I bought up as many of the book candles below as I could obtain at Anthropologie (a store that will put candles in anything and everything): I didn’t particularly care for the candles (still intact); I just liked the “books”. They are long gone from the store now, but these more colorful book vases are still very much in stock. A bit more sophisticated examples from Seletti and Kim Marsh are available here and here, and I suspect I could gather much more.

Hardcovers 030

Anthropologie ceramic book vases

Book Vases

Hardcovers Kim Marsh


Lion’s Paw

When I was assembling my portfolio of Renaissance “green” merchants, I came across a Lorenzo Lotto portrait that I had seen long ago and then forgotten: I remember being perplexed by it then and remain so now. It is Man with a Golden Paw, dated 1527, featuring a man leaning forward and slightly to the side with a (embellished, sincere) hand on his heart and a lion’s paw in his other hand. When I first saw the portrait in my early 20s I remember being struck by his appearance (is he wearing earmuffs?), now I’m more interested in the lion’s paw.

Lorenzo_Lotto Lion's Paw

Lorenzo Lotto, Man with a Golden Paw, 1527, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The meaning and placement of this particular paw has not been established with great certainty, but most art historians seem to think it offers a clue about the name or occupation of the sitter: a Leo-like name, a goldsmith? Lions in general, and pieces of lions in particular, are so often utilized in art forms throughout history that context is all-important. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the lion had myriad religious and secular associations: as the long-reigning King of Beasts, he represents strength, majesty, courage and fortitude, even Resurrection. Conversely, but still expressions of his power, the lion could represent pride or vengeful wrath. In religious iconography he is associated most strongly with St. Mark and St. Jerome, who removed a painful thorn from a lion’s paw and received a friend and servant for life in return: any possibilities for our painting in this particular story? In various poses, the lion represents a range of attributes in heraldic devices as well, always kingship, bravery, fierceness, and more subtle watchfulness (as it was a medieval belief that lions slept with their eyes open). Lotto’s paw-holding man holds my interest because at this point in time (again, 1527) the lion reference could mean anything: a rather mundane association to family name or profession, a testimony to skill, strength, or power, an expression of faith. But not long after this moment, his prized paw will be reduced to a mere decorative motif, shorn of its long-held symbolism and so commonly featured in the decorative arts from the eighteenth century onwards that it becomes almost invisible–certainly not the focal point of the piece.

Detached (literally and symbolically) lion’s paws, 17th- 21st centuries:

Lion's Paw Furniture Mount MET

Lion's Paw Raphael

Lion's Paw excavation

Lion's Paw bookend RH

Gilt Bronze Lion’s paw furniture mount, French, late 17th-early 18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sketches of Raphael Cartoons by Sir James Thornhill, c. 1729-1731, Victoria and Albert Museum; Excavated Lion’s Paw from the Victorian conservatory at Tyntesfield, Archaeology National Trust SW; Lion’s Paw bookends, Restoration Hardware.


Super Bowls

I must admit that I stole the title of this post from the online shelter magazine Lonny:  I couldn’t resist, but it is so obvious you would think I could have come up with it myself! In terms of content, however: my bowls are very different from theirs. Not being a big fan of either football in general or the Super Bowl in particular, I have to seek alternative activities for this weekend and shopping for or merely seeking material objects always works for me. As bowls are probably the most utilitarian object around–perhaps even more so than plates–there was a big sea to navigate but nevertheless I came up with a top ten list pretty quickly. My preferences run to antique with glazed or embellished finishes–I am currently obsessed with silver lustreware–but a touch of subtle iridescence or whimsy on a bowl of any vintage will always catch my eye.

Bowl 1

Antique Silver Resist Lustre Punch Bowl, $265

Bowl 3

Antique creamware salad bowl, price upon request

??????????

An Amazing Mochaware punch bowl with swags! $3200

Okay, let’s get a big more realistic: I might be able to swing for the silver lustreware bowl but certainly not the mochaware one. I have a pantry full of Mason Cash bowls, so I certainly don’t need any more, but I like basic yellow ware bowls, both old and new, particularly the white-banded variety. Many modern potters seem to produce updated creamware bowls, in a variety of interesting shapes and glazes.

bowl Yellow Ware

Late 19th-early 20th century Yellow Ware Bowl, $68

Laura_De_Benedetti_s1211

Creamware bowl by Laura De Benedetti, £25

kevin-millward-medium-hand-thrown-creamware-bowl-

 Kevin Milward Creamware Bowl, £60

Bowl Fairmont and Main

Fairmont & Main Creamware Vegetable Bowl, £13.59

Two cute cereal bowls: buttons and Dali.

Green Button Soup Bowl

Bowl Dali

Green Button soup or cereal bowl by Rebecca Lowery, $22;

Salvador Dali “Surreal” cereal bowl, $17

And finally, the best bowl haircut of all time: on the heroic, short-lived King Henry V (1387-1422): as depicted in a portrait by an unknown artist in the late Tudor era–an age which fixed his image for all time.

NPG 545; King Henry V by Unknown artist

Henry V, © National Portrait Gallery, London

 


Deaccessioning Salem

The vast wealth accumulated by Salem entrepreneurs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries created a cultural landscape that still characterizes the city to some extent, encompassing institutions that inherited this wealth in the form of both currency and treasures. When the former runs out, the latter are tapped, and priorities shift over time: such is the pattern of deaccessioning. The First Church of Salem sold 14 pieces of colonial silver nearly a decade ago, and built an addition with the profits. The Trustees of the Salem Athenaeum have considered the sale of their 1629 Massachusetts Bay Charter, sealed with the signature of King Charles I, from time to time, with the earnest approval of some and the deep disdain of others. Sometimes a deaccessioning will enhance Salem’s heritage rather than take it away: such was the case of the Richard Derby House, which was donated to the City by the Society of the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England) in 1937 to serve as a cornerstone of the new Salem Maritime National Historic Site. When it comes to smaller treasures, I think more things have left Salem than remained, and apparently another prize is about to depart: this week the Salem Public Library announced that it had consigned a painting by Salem’s most notable modern artist, Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), to Skinner Auctions for its January 23 auction of European and American Works of Art. The painting, entitled Figure in White, apparently depicts Benson’s older sister, Georgiana, and was completed about 1890: he retained it throughout his life, and after his death his children bequeathed it to the Library, for which Benson had served as a Trustee from 1912 until his death.

Benson Figure in White

Benson plaque Figure in White

Benson Photograph Phillips Library Collections

Figure in White (1890), by Frank Weston Benson, and frame plaque, Skinner Auctions; Benson c. 1907-1908, Benson Family Papers, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

I am very torn on this one: obviously this man demonstrated a life-long commitment to the Library and his heirs wanted to honor that commitment in both a personal and generous way. When you approach the sale from that perspective it looks rather cold and cavalier. On the other hand, I’ve never seen this painting: its value (it has an estimate of $350,000-$550,000) has necessitated its securement behind closed doors. The Trustees of the Library, the successors of Benson, have a duty to the public as well as to the institution, and there must a long list of wants and needs that could be funded by the proceeds from the sale: one project that has been mentioned is the restoration of the Victorian cast-iron garden fountain adjacent to the Library building. The painting is one bequest, the entire library complex (building and fountain) another: it was donated to the City by the family of Salem’s most eminent philanthropist, Captain John Bertram, in 1887. Should one be “sacrificed” for the other? I’m just glad that I didn’t have to make this decision!

Salem Public LIbrary 1910

Salem Heraldry Paintings Coles

Captain John Bertram’s House (and a bit of his fountain), built in 1855 and donated to the City of Salem by his heirs in 1887–now the Salem Public Library, Detroit Publishing Company, 1910; Let’s bring some Salem back! Beautiful heraldry paintings for the Vincent and Cogswell Families by Salem artist John Coles, c. 1794, from another upcoming Americana auction @ Christie’s.


A Very Gorey Christmas

The juxtaposition of crowded academic and social calendars at this time of year always makes me a bit grumpy. I try to contain (or hide) my scrooge-like sentiments, but I’m generally too tired to make that much of an effort, and consequently they pop out periodically. This year I am taking comfort in a book that I received from a thoughtful friend last year: The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, a 1993 collaboration between iconic illustrator Edward Gorey and John Updike. These terrors (a too heavily-laden Christmas tree, the threat of electrocution from all the electronic games under said tree, fears of not giving enough, not receiving enough, and returning all the stuff you did receive) are not quite my terrors (fatigue, rampant commercialism, over-consumption of food, drink, and stuff) but I like the overall sentiment, or lack thereof. And then there are the illustrations. “Christmas” and “Gorey” are not words that naturally go together, but he had tread that terrain previously–with a series of not-too-macabre Christmas cards for the Albondaconi Press and other publishers from the 1970s on–and the success of Terrors inspired a second holiday book: The Haunted Tea-Cosy. A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas Dispirited (1997), a parody of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. All very merry images, in that distinctly Gorey style.

M28292-96c 001

M28292-135 001

M28292-127 001

Gorey Christmas Card

Gorey Great Veiled Bear Christmas Card

First editions of Edward Gorey’s Twelve Terrors and The Haunted Tea-Cosy & Albondacani Press Christmas cards, Swann Auction Galleries; Gorey Christmas Cards, The Gorey Store/ Charitable Trust.


Architectural Alphabets

Architecture and Alphabets: two of my favorite things, together. I’ve been meaning to post some images from Jean Baptiste de Pian’s clever alphabet ever since I discovered it a year or so ago, but just never got to it. There’s already some images and admirers out there, but I’ll add more. The lithographs below, part of a series of 26, were actually created and colored by Leopold Müller in 1842 after paintings by Pian. The series is very rare and valuable: one set sold for over $32,000 at a Christies’ auction last year, and another is currently available at Bromer Booksellers for $65,000. Apparently a facsimile edition was published in 1973 but I can’t find it anywhere. As you can see in the images below (which I have taken from the Christies’ listing), the letters are not just affixed to the structures but rather an integral part of them.

Architectural Alphabet 1842

Architectural Alphabet F

Architectural Alphabet U 1842

As impressive as they are, Pian/Müller’s letters are not completely original conceptions: just a few years earlier the Italian artist and theater designer Antonio Basoli had published his own, predominately classical,architectural alphabet, Alfabeto Pittorico, comprised of 24 letters and an ampersand. Basoli’s Alphabet, as it came to be known, is rare today as well, though apparently not quite so rare as that which it might have inspired: it fetched $15,000 at the same 2013 Christies’ auction. Before Basoli, there was the plan-based architectural alphabet of the German architect Johann David Steingruber, published in 1773. Viewed individually, I don’t think Steingruber’s letters are as impressive as the more consolidated forms of Pian/Müller and Basoli, but collectively (as in this canvas by Ballard Designs from a few years back) they pack a punch.

Alphabetical Alphabet Basoli

Architectural Alphabet Z

steingruber1

steingruber6

Steingruber Ballard Designs

Scans of Basoli & Steingruber at the venerable blog Giornale Nuovo, a feast of information and images.

The architectural alphabet looks like a seventeenth-century invention to me: a direct consequence of the rebirth of classicism and the emergence and development of the printing arts in the centuries before. But I think I’ll move up (back) to our own time, where the architectural alphabet still survives, indeed thrives! Two great examples: Federico Babino’s alphabet of architects, cleverly titled Archibet (he also builds an Archibet City), and the (less integrative but more whimsical) Architectural Alphabet of Andrew Zega and Bernd Dams.

Archibet-alphabet-of-architects-by-Federico-Babina_dezeen_A-01

Archibet-alphabet-of-architects-by-Federico-Babina_dezeen_Z-01

zega and dams


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